Gold coins are among the most desired of all numismatic treasures.
It’s not only the raw value of the precious metal itself. It has more to do with the prestige, the beauty, and the historic value of gold coins.
From the beginning of monetary history, gold coins have set the standard. It began 2500 years ago with the Lydian stater, also called the gold Croeseid, which was the world’s first standardized gold coin.
Since then, gold coins have become emblematic of the rise and fall of empires. The gold staters of Alexander the Great’s successors, the aurei and solidi of the Roman and Byzantine empires, the augustales of Frederick II, and even the gold doubloons of the Spanish Empire are famous numismatic treasures.
Even the United States once minted gold coins. The very rarest have fetched the highest prices of any coin when they come up for auction.
So here’s a look at the top ten gold coins in American history, and what made them special.
Let’s start our list with the most expensive American gold coin ever sold.
This was a 1933 Saint-Gaudens twenty-dollar gold eagle, which was as much a work of art as it was a piece of coinage. The story of the coin’s design, however, dates back to 1907. This was when President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned the celebrated American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign the US gold coinage.
Saint-Gaudens rose to the occasion and designed his eponymous double eagle (a twenty-dollar gold coin). These gold coins are some of the most beautifully designed coins in history. In any case, they’ve certainly proved to be valuable collector’s items—fetching a great deal more than their face value.
Over two decades later, the country was deep in the throes of the Great Depression. The US Treasury still minted double eagles, but things changed in 1933. Before the cessation of minting, the US government produced 445,500 Saint-Gaudens double eagle gold coins.
But the issuance of Executive Order 6102 by President Franklin Roosevelt halted production. Banks could no longer issue gold coins to customers, and the order prohibited citizens from circulating or possessing gold coinage. They melted the minted coins down and pressed them into gold bars.
Two 1933 double eagles were retained and presented to the US National Numismatics Collection. These were supposed to be the only survivors.
But it so happened that a handful of coins were stolen, likely by a US Mint employee, and fenced by Philadelphia jeweler Israel Switt. The Treasury Department never officially issued the 1933 double eagles, which means these coins were stolen property.
Department officials only learned of the theft in 1944, when several of them came up for auction. Prior to this time, the Secret Service was unaware that any of these gold coins had gone missing.
They recovered most of the coins and destroyed them. But one coin made it out of the United States—and found its way into the extensive collection of King Farouk I of Egypt.
Everything was above board: King Farouk acquired the coin legally, and his ministers applied for an export license. Incredibly, the license was granted and the coin left the country only a few days before the Treasury Department discovered the theft of the 1933 double eagles.
The Department tried, through diplomatic channels, to recover the coin. But world events intervened to make this almost impossible. For one thing, this was at the height of the Second World War, when there were more pressing concerns.
Then King Farouk was deposed in 1952, in a coup d’état. The king’s entire coin collection was thereafter put up for auction, including the 1933 double eagle. Although the US Government requested the coin’s return, it mysteriously disappeared from Egypt.
For over forty years, the whereabouts of the famous coin were unknown.
But the double eagle reappeared in 1996, in New York of all places, during a Secret Service sting operation. It was in the possession of British coin dealer Stephen Fenton, and the Service arrested him. The charges were later dropped, with the deciding factor being Fenton’s possession of the original export license obtained by the Egyptian legation.
In 2002, the auction house Sotheby’s sold the coin for a record amount of $7,590,000—plus $20 to monetize the gold coin’s value. By the terms of a civil proceeding, Fenton split the proceeds with the Treasury Department.
The coin’s buyer remained anonymous for almost twenty years. In March of 2021, he was revealed to be Stuart Weitzman, an American shoe designer, and collector of stamps and coins. The coin was auctioned in June, where it fetched an historic price of $18,872,250.
The Saint-Gaudens double eagles are remarkably popular at auction.
The 1933 double eagle has no equals for drama and adventure. But there are other Saint-Gaudens gold eagles that fetch high prices. These include the 1907 ultra-high-relief proofs for the Saint-Gaudens double eagle.
The Saint-Gaudens gold coins are famous for their obverse with a magnificent figure of Liberty, and their reverse of a flying eagle over the rising sun. The artistry of the incomparable Augustus Saint-Gaudens means that they’re also some of the world’s most beautiful coins.
However, both Theodore Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens wanted the coins to be very high relief. Roosevelt, in particular, wanted the coins to evoke the high-relief staters of ancient Greek kingdoms, or exquisite Roman medallions.
There was a great deal of ego and idiosyncrasy, on the part of both president and artist, in this decision. There’s no question that the design was beautiful, and the high relief is necessary to achieve the fullest results.
But low-relief coinage proved to be the only practical form. After all, it took up to nine high-pressure strokes to bring out the relief on the gold pieces. This was too much for the mass-production needs of the US Mint.
Nevertheless, about twenty gold proofs of Saint-Gaudens original, ultra-high-relief design remain. They include high, lettered edges, bearing the legend “E Pluribus Unum.”
The coins are true works of art, and they showcase to the greatest effect the artistry of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Whenever one comes up for auction, they fetch a price well north of $2 million. In 2005, one such proof sold for $2,990,000.
An interesting and little-known part of American numismatic history is that the newborn country’s earliest gold coins were privately minted.
The US Mint began minting coinage in 1792, but five years earlier, in 1787, the New York goldsmith Ephraim Brasher minted his own gold coins. Brasher was highly regarded throughout the former colonies for the quality of his work, which extended to the minting of copper and even gold coins.
Ephraim Brasher was a neighbor of George Washington for a time, and even transacted some business with the first president. So it’s no exaggeration to say that he was a highly regarded goldsmith and assayer, and was much in demand.
Seven examples of the Brasher doubloon exist. It’s a curious thing thatchy named these coins after the well-known Spanish coinage, which is best remembered from pirate stories.
But it is important to remember that Spanish coins were abundant in the New World. Spanish dollars and doubloons were the first international currency, circulating in Europe, the New World, and even the Far East. Wherever the Spanish Empire was or had been, its coinage reigned supreme.
And this was true of the currency in the American colonies and the early United States. The early nation had no currency of its own as yet, which is why dollars and doubloons remained legal tender for quite some time.
For this reason, Brasher’s unique gold coins were modeled after the doubloon (el doblón), valued at sixteen Spanish dollars.
The New York-style Brasher doubloon is a beautiful creation, despite its unofficial nature. The coin’s obverse depicts what is essentially the Seal of the United States.
There is an eagle with outstretched wings, a shield on its breast, and clutching an olive branch and a bunch of arrows in either talon. Six of the coins have Brasher’s distinctive “EB” punch mark on the eagle’s right wing; the seventh has it upon the shield.
The reverse has the arms of the state of New York, with a depiction of the sun rising above a mountain range. The coins are incredibly rare, and hail from an intriguing and formative period of American history.
The latest Brasher doubloon sold in January of 2021, for a record price of $9.36 million.
This fabulously rare gold coin from the Republic’s early history is one of the most sought-after coins in the world.
In fact, the coin is so rare that there is only one available for private ownership. The US gold half eagles went through various design changes during the period in which they circulated, from 1795 to 1929.
The 1822 version has an obverse depicting Liberty wearing a cap, which is why the coin is often called the “Capped Head” half eagle. The reverse, of course, depicts the famous eagle that we’re accustomed to seeing on much US coinage.
In 1822, the Philadelphia Mint produced 17,796 of these half eagle gold coins, but only three of the coins have survived. The National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution houses two of these survivors. The third is the only one available for private collection—a fact that contributes to the high prices it fetches at auction.
The history of this specimen is interesting. Its first known owner was Virgil Brand, who acquired it in 1899. Louis Eliasberg purchased it in 1945, and one D. Brent Pogue acquired it in 1982.
The coin is not in mint condition, which is somewhat unusual for such a high-priced coin. Though graded almost uncirculated, it does show some signs of usage—which gives it a little character.
The 1822 five-dollar half eagle sold in March of 2021 for $8.4 million, a near-record gold coin price.
The 1856-O Liberty gold coin is one of the rarest and most coveted of gold dollar coins.
These $20 dollar gold coins are large and heavy, with a beautiful design that collectors love. But the 1856-O Liberty Head is something else altogether.
The New Orleans Mint (designated by the “O” in 1856-O) produced only 2,250 gold double eagles during the year of 1856. It’s no surprise that such a low mintage number, and consequent scarcity, make New Orleans double eagles much sought after by collectors.
Most of these Liberty gold coins, however, are of poor quality—at least in their features. As a result of low striking pressure at the mint, the details of the coins are soft and poorly rendered.
But there is one 1856-O gold double eagle that is the exception that proves the rule. It is truly a work of art, with striking relief, exceptional details, and a reflective field.
At first, most thought the coin was a proof. But records indicate that the New Orleans Mint didn’t produce any proofs in 1856. Still, the extraordinary beauty of the specimen coin shows that mint workers put a great deal of effort into this particular coin.
Perhaps it was a proof, for which no documentation survived. Or maybe the mint produced a special coin at additional expense for a collector. The beauty of this Liberty Head double eagle remains a mystery.
Not so its price. It sold at auction for $1,437,500. Which is quite a bit more than $20.
This is an especially rare and little-known gold coin.
Whenever these coins come up for auction, they fetch extremely high prices. These four-dollar gold coins are also known as “Stellas,” for the legend on the reverse of the coin.
The gold Stellas were “pattern coins,” experimental issues for a proposed coin design that were never released into circulation. The history of these pattern coins is interesting enough. They were struck at the behest of Congressman John A. Kasson, to explore the United States joining the Latin Monetary Union.
The Latin Monetary Union (LMU) was a kind of nineteenth-century precursor to the Eurozone, comprising France, Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland along with other associated states. The signatory states had to adopt certain currency standards, and the Stella showcased the standardized currency which the US would adopt if it entered the union.
Alas, Congress chose not to join the LMU, and the Stellas never entered circulation. Still, several proofs of the coins exist, from the years 1879 and 1880. The 1879 design included an image of Liberty with flowing hair, whereas the 1880 design had coiled hair.
The “Flowing Hair” coin is the most common, with over four hundred known examples. The “Coiled Hair” coin is much rarer, with only eight known examples. No wonder that the latest sale of a Coiled Hair Stella fetched $2.57 million at auction.
With the passage of the Mint Act of 1792, the United States began producing its own coinage.
Among the Act’s provisions were protocols for minting gold coins, including denominations of ten dollars, known as gold eagles. The government minted the earliest ten-dollar gold eagles in 1795, with a total output that year of 5,583 coins.
The gold eagle was the highest denomination produced by the Mint, and the issues of 1795-1797 are particularly desirable. The obverse depicts Liberty wearing a cap; the resemblance of the headgear to a turban has led to the coin’s other moniker of “Turban Head.” The reverse shows an eagle with a wreath in its mouth.
Most of these early gold coins were uncirculated, since ten dollars was a sizable sum of money in those days. Moreover, they estimate that only about 10% of the original coins remain.
So the Capped Bust eagles are quite rare to begin with. Then there’s the fact that they redesigned the coin in 1797, changing the reverse to depict a more familiar heraldic eagle. It turns out the original eagle was too “scrawny” to worthily represent the United States.
All of this means that the 1795 gold eagle is one of the most sought-after US gold coins. Its rarity and historical significance are unquestioned. At an auction in 2015, one of these coins sold for $2,585,000.
Another product of the fruitful efforts of Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the so-called “Indian Head Eagle.”
This ten-dollar piece includes an image of Liberty wearing (somewhat absurdly) an Indian warbonnet. So, despite the name, an Indian head is not actually depicted. Still, it’s an attractive and valuable coin, and the proofs are the most valuable of all.
Records show that about fifty of these 1907 Indian Head gold coin proofs were struck, but it’s thought that only about twelve remain. One came up for auction in 2011, and sold for a staggering $2,185,000.
It was one of the finest examples of these Indian Head proofs. The problem, as with Saint-Gaudens’ other coin designs, is that the ultra high relief poses problems for the presses. They often fail to bring the relief out in its full glory.
But this was not the case for the high-grade proof that came up for auction. The relief was executed to perfection, with all details in exquisite condition. There are rumors that a coin of similar grade was privately sold in 2015 for $3 million, but the sale price has never been verified.
By 1850, the United States Mint was producing “double eagles.” As the name suggests, these coins were worth twice the face value of an eagle, for a total of twenty dollars.
James Barton Longacre crafted the attractive designs for these coins. They are variants on the classic Liberty head obverse and heraldic eagle reverse, in use on American coinage since the late eighteenth century.
Toward the end of 1860, Anthony C. Paquet, an assistant engraver at the US Mint, worked to improve the coin’s design. This involved modifying the reverse so that the letters were both taller and narrower. The design was approved, and coin dies were produced in Philadelphia and shipped out to the mint in San Francisco.
However, in the early part of the following year, a flaw was discovered in the dies. Experts discovered that the rim was too narrow, and they decided that it would be unable to protect the design elements of the coin over time.
By the time the San Francisco mint was contacted, they had already struck over 19,000 before halting production. The coins are quite rare, which makes them very popular among coin collectors.
It also makes them very valuable. At an auction in 2014, one of these Liberty gold coins sold for $1,645,000.
Finally, we’ll wrap up our list of the top ten American gold coins with this extraordinary piece of numismatic artistry.
The coin is an exquisite proof of an 1833 gold five-dollar half eagle and is in almost perfect condition. It belonged to the legendary collection of coin collector D. Brent Pogue, who assembled one of the finest quality collections of American coins in existence.
The 1833 half eagle proof sold in 2016 for $1,351,250, and it’s easy to see why. The fields on the coin have a radiant, reflective surface, which is extremely rare for a coin that’s nearly two centuries old. The devices have a frosted finish that contrasts nicely with the vibrant fields, and the coin is almost perfectly struck.
There’s only one other known example of this coin, and it’s in the Smithsonian Institution. For the time being, the only other 1833 half eagle proof is in private hands, unless and until it comes up for auction again.
There’s no shortage of drama and interest when it comes to America’s most fabled gold coins.
From the Brasher Doubloon, to the Coiled Hair Stella, to the 1933 Double Eagle, the highs and lows of American history are recorded in its rare gold coinage. You might not be able to own these most expensive specimens, but there are plenty of old US gold coins available for purchase.
So please contact us today at Bullion Shark. We have the resources and the know-how to help you build your gold coin collection.
This content was originally published here.
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